Since at least September, employees of GitHub have been pressuring the Microsoft-owned code repository to terminate its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, without success. Now they’re getting reinforcements from a constituency that could have more clout.
In an open letter published Wednesday on GitHub, software developers representing the open source community joined the call for GitHub to immediately cancel the $200,000 contract with ICE.
“Open source is about inverting power structures and creating access and opportunities for everyone,” the letter, signed by 44 developers at the time of publication, reads. “We, the undersigned, cannot see how to reconcile our ethics with GitHub’s continued support of ICE. Moreover, your lack of transparency around the ethical standards you use for conducting business is also concerning to a community that is focused around doing everything out in the open.”
Open source software is made up of source code that is free to be used, distributed and modified by anyone; examples include parts of the Firefox browser and the Ethereum blockchain. Although much of the code stored on GitHub is open source, the rest of it is often stored privately or available only for a licensing fee.
Notably, the developers behind the letter stop short of threatening to boycott the platform, which plays an increasingly indispensable role in projects that require collaborating around code. Some say they now feel they’re stuck with a company they are no longer morally aligned with.
In airing their demands openly, the developers borrow a tactic that has worked in the past. Four years ago, hundreds of unsatisfied open source contributors put their names to a letter, titled Dear GitHub, criticizing the company for ignoring their requests for new features and fixes for broken ones for years. The company went “above and beyond” to remedy their issues, according to the newly published letter.
GitHub pays careful attention to its open source contributors, said Don Goodman-Wilson, who worked as a developer advocate at the company.
The Dear GitHub letter “has been quite influential on the way that we approach product design,” Goodman-Wilson, whose job entailed persuading people to use the company’s open source services, said. “We have teams that work specifically on features for open source developers. They don’t pay for our software. There’s not money to be made in doing this, but we take it very seriously nonetheless.”
On Monday, Goodman-Wilson tendered his resignation, saying he felt he could not ask developers to use the platform given GitHub’s contract with ICE.
“I am deeply concerned about the damage to my own reputation from defending GitHub,” he wrote in a letter to his co-workers. “Leadership has made clear to me personally that they will not change course.”
His is the seventh resignation over the contract since October.
GitHub staffers have been agitating internally and publicly since the company renewed its contract with ICE in September. After employees published their demands at the beginning of October, the company said it would donate $500,000 to nonprofits that helped communities affected by the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Chief Executive Nat Friedman also said that though he disagreed with the immigration policies ICE is enforcing, canceling the contract would not persuade the Trump administration to change them.
Friedman’s statements failed to quell the dissent. As employees continued to challenge the relationship in meetings and other venues, GitHub Chief Operating Officer Erica Brescia said that barring ICE from “access to GitHub could actually hurt the very people we all want to help,” as The Los Angeles Times first reported.
In response to several requests for comments in the last two months the company has directed The Los Angeles Times to its original memo published in October. The company did not respond to questions about the developers’ letter or Goodman-Wilson’s resignation.
Complicating matters is GitHub’s ubiquity in the developer community and the difficulty of switching to another platform less popular with collaborators.
“I think that knowledge that GitHub has that their platform is somewhat of a monopoly within this system, at least in terms of influence, is critical to the fact that they can be somewhat arrogant in the way that they’re responding to this,” Tatiana Mac, a product designer and developer who signed the open letter, said.
Still, boycotting the platform remains an option, according to Mac and other signers such as David Heinemeier Hansson, the founder of Ruby on Rails, the programming language GitHub was initially built on. “GitHub has almost innumerable benefits from the fact that they’re seen as the de facto place for open source hosting,” Heinemeier Hansson said. “But that can absolutely change. I think that it’d be very foolish for them and for their owners to jeopardize that position.”
But for those who have contributed and maintained code on GitHub for several years, Hansson conceded that it would be difficult to migrate all the repositories to another platform.
“I hope it doesn’t get to that,” he said. “If we can get GitHub to change their mind and change their actions and so forth, that’s a far preferable outcome of this rather than just say, ‘Well, we’re going to take our ball in and go home.’ But that threat needs to be there at all times.”
In the meantime, some developers are finding subtler ways to subvert the company. Marcos Càceres, a software engineer at Mozilla who also co-chairs the World Wide Web Consortium, which maintains and develops open standards for the internet, said he’s been encouraging paying users to suspend their subscriptions and use free services until the company changes its course.
Mat Marquis, an independent consultant, is a part of an experimental sponsorship program that helps open source developers solicit donations for their work creating free software. GitHub matches donations of as much as $5,000 for members of the program.
In protest of the contract, Marquis said he’ll be donating the same amount he receives in sponsorships to Beyond Bond & Legal Defense Fund, a Boston group that helps pay the bonds for people held in ICE detention centers.
“I’m angry and I’m lashing out the way GitHub taught me to,” Marquis said. GitHub, he said, “feels inescapable” as part of the code-writing process.
“For a pittance in tech-money terms, and to appease their parent company’s contract pursuits, GitHub has successfully turned its most impassioned advocates into users that are only stuck here for as long as it takes to find something better,” he said.
And although he’s not ready to call for an all-out boycott, Heinemeier Hansson said he would discourage new users from joining the platform until GitHub responds to the open letter.
“Just see how this plays out,” he said. “I think anyone who is starting a product can afford to hold off for a couple of weeks.”